Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, a comedy about three sailors enjoying 24-hour shore leave in New York City, was his first composition for Broadway. The sequences he adapted to a spirited concert suite (Three Dance Episodes) had a degree of orchestral complexity and dynamism that were new to the Broadway stage. The first, Dance of the Great Lover, was marked by terrific syncopation, and the Tonhalle Orchestra’s horns sounded the bombast of busy traffic. Following a stunning start by the woodwinds, the Pas de Deux was a melancholy episode lush with strings and a sense of thwarted romance. Finally, for Times Square, 1944 Paavo Järvi’s strikingly physical conducting boosted the action enough to suit a huge MGM film. Against the throb of city sounds, the saxophone, xylophone and bassoon were particularly outstanding, making an urban heyday a tribute, both to a vibrant metropolis and to Bernstein’s genius.

Igor Levit
© Felix Broede

George Gershwin’s classic, much-loved, Piano Concerto in F featured the brilliant German pianist, Igor Levit. The work’s traditional three movements all show a propensity to jazz, but each is also marked by what has been cited as “structural integrity rooted in the classical tradition”. The first movement features a quick, pulsating, rhythm that Gershwin said “represented the young enthusiastic spirit of American life”. In it, Levit bent tightly into a neat “C” over the keys, almost as a scientist at the machine of his own invention, and he ably varied his sound between the extremes of the delicate and the highly powerful. Sadly, at the tumultuous end of the first movement, the orchestra played too loudly, completely drowning out Levit’s mastery for several minutes.

By contrast, the concerto’s second movement has a poetic, nocturnal atmosphere that starts with almost sleazy-like utterances from the French horn, and the woodwinds carry a mood even farther. There, Levit – seeming entirely relaxed – occasionally even passing his left foot over his right on the pedals, seemed in a comfort zone of the first order. In one particularly sombre passage, the audience was ruffled by a ringing cell-phone, yet a silvery flute ably returned us to the magic of the mood. The finale started with a striking bang, and continued onto a busy city’s hustle-and-bustle, the whole orchestra mastering a catalog of rhythms.

Last on the programme was Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, a work originally intended for a ballet. After years of discord with the Nazis in his native Germany, who had cited his music as “degenerate”, Hindemith moved to America, where his Metamorphosis was premiered in New York in 1944, where it was cited asa splashy, colorful orchestral piece... that American audiences like in particular.”

Here in Zurich, the piece took off like a racehorse out of a gate. But the start was almost unconscionably loud, and the first movement included predictable explosions. Later, the solo oboe and silvery flute gave convincing voices from a wilderness, but the score itself became highly repetitive, its weave almost predictable. That said, the winds passed a theme back and forth with sovereign ease, and the third movement morphed into march music which the snare drums met with great precision. The Tonhalle’s strings set a celebratory pace, too. But after the sublime Bernstein and Gershwin variations, less might well have been more.